Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2015: Committee and Remaining Stages
The Minister mentioned two points in his contribution on Second Stage on which I wish to touch. He said that the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, wants the commission to be as representative as possible. I agree and have no doubt that the Minister of State does too. Perhaps the Minister did not have any input into it. The current commission is the only one in history so far where the Government did not use the ministerial appointment mechanism to put in somebody independent. As such, the only non-government representatives on the commission were Deputy John Browne and me. That is poor practice.
While the commission did a good job and we worked well together with not too many rows, it is not a good practice. Ministerial and Government appointments, while ensuring that there are adequate Government representatives, should also be used to ensure that small parties and Independent Members are represented. There were ten or 12 of us on the commission, only two of whom are not from Government parties. It raised issues at times because certain groups were not represented. We tried to represent them, but they were not happy about it. I make the point in the interests of transparency.
I note another thing the Minister of State might bring back to the Department and the Minister and his efforts. Obviously, the commission is responsible in people's eyes for salaries and expenses and all of those types of things, but the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is the body that determines rates. That is not for the commission.
The other thing that came up several times over the five-year period was that there was a change to the expenses regime which we all supported. Expenses went down and things became a great deal more transparent. That is very much to be commended. We all welcomed it. What did not change, notwithstanding the fact that it needed to, was that Senators in particular were entitled to claim for certain expenses but did not have a list of tangible things they were allowed to put expenses towards, as Members of the Dáil did. The Minister consistently ignored it for no reason other than that it might not have played out that well in the media from an aesthetic point of view. There was a pool of money there and it was not going to make it any more expensive, but the menu of issues permitted for Senators to draw down was much smaller and much narrower than for Deputies. One could argue that this was necessary as Deputies certainly have expenses which Senators do not incur. I get that. However, it was prohibitively narrow and made life extremely difficult for Senators in trying to do their work over the course of the last five years.
I support Senator MacSharry on that point very strongly. Senators from country areas cannot use the facilities of the House on the days we are not sitting. As such, many of us have set up offices in what I call our constituencies but referring to our home bases. We never asked for expenses for those offices. We asked to be allowed to put the expense of our offices under the €12,000 we get for our expenses. It was never going to cost more money, but for some reason heels were dug in. There was a view that it would give us bad press or something. In the meantime, we are all laying out big money for offices, but cannot put that in as an expense. It is crazy because we are providing the service and working for the people. I know they keep telling us we do not have constituencies and that our constituency is Ireland and I understand the point. However, we have to have a base from which to work and a place our secretaries can be if they are in our local areas. It is fine for people in Dublin. Things are really geared around Dublin people who can come in every day to Leinster House and use their offices here. We cannot do so.
Speaking for myself because everyone does things differently, I note that I rent an office and have photocopying, electricity and other costs. I bear those costs out of my wages. I am not complaining about that because I am well paid, but we should be allowed to put those costs in under our expenses. It is not about giving us any more money. The ones who ended up gaining out of all of this have been the newspapers because we ended up spending a lot of the expenses money on advertising. That is what we can put under our expenses as well as a bit of extra secretarial staff support. I cannot understand why we are not allowed to put our offices in as an expense under the same amount. I support Senator MacSharry very much on that.
This matter was the subject of meetings with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. While he was very sympathetic towards us, nothing happened. I do not think we were even talking about offices but rather about some small areas where Senators were looking for parity of esteem with their colleagues in the other House.These matters should be dealt with and should never have happened. There was a variation between what people in the other House and the Seanad could do. In one ridiculous instance, a Senator could not buy a laptop and claim it under expenses whereas a Member of the Dáil could. These simple matters should be addressed, and I hope they will be addressed as a matter of urgency by whoever makes up the next Government. There are restrictions and anomalies that must be addressed.
I thank the officials who worked so diligently on the Bill to get it through both Houses. I thank Senators for their constructive engagement on the Bill. I will relay their views to the Minister, Deputy Howlin, although it sounds like he is very aware of them.